Springdale students work with CMU to build robotic dioramas based on poetry

| Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, 11:44 a.m.

In the world of eighth-grade language arts students at Springdale Junior-Senior High School, curtains snap open, a bird falls from the sky, the sun rises and sets, and a calf totters over to its mother.

Students in the accelerated language arts class gather around laptops, using computer code to dispatch 360-degree motors, vibrating motors and LED lights illuminating a tissue-paper moon.

In a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, junior high school students in the Allegheny Valley School District are working to build robotic dioramas, based on poems chosen by the students.

The project, “Robot Theater – Where Poetry Comes to Life,” is a collaboration between the language arts department and the Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) program.

Arts & Bots, created by researchers at CMU, allows students to combine craft materials and robotic components to build and animate robotic creations using visual programming software.

The project engages both girls and boys from elementary school through high school.

Chloe Guy, 14, Lauren Roche, 13, and Brandon Panza, 14, have created a robotic diorama depicting William Wordsworth's “The Sun Has Long Been Set.”

In their diorama — complete with sound effects — a chain saw cuts down a tree, while a gunshot is heard and a bird falls.

“It was nice to be able to put a lot of creativity into it,” Roche said.

The students are led by Susan Mellon, the school's gifted support coordinator. She introduced the idea last year.

Mellon picked poetry as a robot application because the reading material often shows up on SAT and PSSA testing.

“Kids are often intimidated by poetry,” Mellon said.

But with repetition through reciting it to accompany the diorama and teasing out imagery to depict, the students begin to understand the poems, she said.

Matt Kern, 14, and Cameron Pribulsky, 13, chose Robert Frost's “The Pasture.”

Using weights to open the curtains on their pastoral scene, the boys also set up a tottering calf and vibrating fish in a cellophane pond.

“It keeps you interested,” Kern said of the project.

In 2006, CMU researches devoted time to making robotics more appealing to girls and students who are less-than-tech inclined.

They found that the competitive atmosphere of most robotics competitions turned some students off to the idea of building a robot.

Researchers developed Hummingbird, a kit that consists of a customized control board along with a variety of lights, sensors and motors that can be connected to the controller without soldering.

Tom Lauwers who earned his doctorate in robotics and now heads BirdBrain Technologies, which distributes the Hummingbird kits, said he had two goals in mind for students.

One goal is that more students might be encouraged to enter into science- and technology-oriented careers and diversify the field by adding more women.

According to CMU Robotics Professor Illah Nourbakhsh, whose CREATE Lab developed Hummingbird, studies have shown that when they enter middle school, boys and girls are equally interested in robots.

But once students enter high school, that interest drops dramatically in girls.

“I think maybe the more important goal for me is to empower the kids who use it to feel that they cannot only just use technology, but to not just accept what professional developers give them,” Lauwers said.

“Even if the students, themselves, don't become engineers, if they become graphic designers, I want them to feel like they can change the software they're using. They don't just have to accept it.”

While educational robotic kits traditionally have focused on the technology itself, Hummingbird treats robotics as just one element that can be combined with craft materials and text to communicate thoughts, feelings or ideas.

At Springdale Junior-Senior High School, the program is paid for with a recently acquired $4,000 Great Idea Grant from the Consortium for Public Education.

Mellon said she hopes to expand the program from language arts students to other areas of study.

Kate Wilcox is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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